Jordan WofsonPublished: January, 2021, Jordan Wolfson for the book "New Waves. Contemporary Art and The Issues Shaping Its Tomorrow", Skira, 2021
Marta Gnyp: If you open your artist page on the website of David Zwirner Gallery, the first thing you see is (Female Figure), which has become a very iconic work of yours. I was wondering whether you like the fact that you are immediately associated with this very work.
Jordan Wolfson: Oh, I never thought of it like that. It simply represents the first of my animatronic sculptures.
MG: How did you come to the idea of the animatronic figures?
JW: Initially, I was interested in making an animation. Then I saw an animatronic work and I witnessed a certain type of physicality of seeing. I was never interested in them before, but I was very taken by this sort of articulation of hand movements and wanted to import that articulation of movement into my work. But, “Oh well, how do I do this?” I had this idea about a video with this female figure – but instead of making the video I thought I’m just gonna, simply, make the female figure an animatronic.
MG: It is probably a very complicated process to make one.
JW: Making it is very difficult, but the idea is pretty simple. The idea was about negating of titillation, and a kind of more general, objective negation of the object itself – of the sculpture, through the eye contact.
MG: I experienced this direct and interactive eye contact myself when I saw this work in Basel. Additionally, you put the viewer and the object in a closed separate room and forced even more close contact between them.
JW: Yeah, I limited the viewership to a maximum of four people to take it away from the spectacle.
MG: Was this a strategy to keep the spectacle out?
JW: The idea is that you go in and out of the spectacle. When it’s not looking at you, you have the spectacle of the object. But when it look sat you, you are not able to see it as the object. So, the less people touring the room, the more eye contact they have just by the nature of the program. In order to keep on kind of slipping the viewer between this experience of subject/object – subject/object, limiting it between two and four people maximizes that experience. It guarantees that each viewer has an adequate amount of profound eye contact with the sculpture.
MG: The narrative of the figure is puzzling as well. You see this blonde woman wearing a mini skirt, long white latex boots, and with a witch mask on her face. She is talking to herself – or to the viewer, you never know. Why did you construct her this way?
JW: I don’t know. I think that that’s the nature of my work. My intuition is to make things with a kind of vague narrative. I’m not interested in a didactive narrative. I think the most interesting is when things don’t line up perfectly; when there is a nuance to something rather then it being a binary.
MG: The title of the work, (Female Figure), is very generic.
JW: It’s actually (Female Figure) in parenthesis and then “2014”. So back to talking about the year it was made – I made it the title as well.
MG: You represented this generic female figure as a kind of desperate housewife; were you criticized by such representation of a woman?
JW: Of course, I was, but that’s the nature of criticism. People look at the most obvious part of the work and then accuse me of blasphemy. Because the artist uses a certain image, they are in a sense suggesting that the artist considers this image as good or is using art to reinforce the message of something that should be valid. I’m not trying to reinforce the existence of misogyny; I’m looking at misogyny. I’m not reinforcing it saying, “It’s good and it should be here, and you should subscribe to it. If you haven’t subscribed to it now you should.” I’m looking at it like I’m looking at the world. I’m not trying to fix the world; I’m trying to see the world.
MG: On the other hand, the female figure is not the only provocative work you made. You had happy HIV viruses swirl in your animation film; you used images of 9/11 in another one. I think you’re an artist who likes to provoke.
JW: You know, the word “provoke” always sounds like kind of “performing.” I like doing things that I’m thinking about and that I am interested in. I’m doing things that are in my mind. These are things that I want to follow because I find them powerful and charged. I’m not sitting and thinking “How could I provoke?” at all, ever. I’m thinking really what I’m interested in and what I want to see. I was trying to listen to culture, have an uncensored relationship to it, and have an uncensored artistic output. One of the things of being uncensored is, one assumes, that you try to be provocative. But I’m really just allowing a complete uncensored filter through myself. I would never be like “I like to be provocative.” I would never think it to myself. I would be like “Wow. That’s powerful. That’s scary.”
MG: Do you ever think how to reach the public?
MG: It doesn’t interest you?
JW: No, I can only say my reach to the public is based on my own physical and intellectual experience. So, everything we see is basically how I see and feel. The only way I can access the public is potentially through my body. When you see the works, you’re seeing how I see. You’re seeing the world through me – with me. The nature of that means that potentially I am the first viewer of the work. I don’t sit down and imagine how to engage. It’s not “How do I engage with the public?” It’s more like “Where do I feel something? How do I feel something?” I feel accomplished when I know that I feel something and you’re gonna feel something.
MG: Interesting. Because (Female Figure) and your other works are so much about the contact with the viewer.
JW: Totally. It’s all about the viewer’s body. What I mean is that the viewer’s an empty vessel and it’s the only way for me to basically interpret it. To tune the works to the body it’s like to tune them to my body. But really everything is made, not for me but in my size. It hurts me to say that I don’t address the public but I’m not thinking about what would be thought of the public.
MG: You must be very secure about yourself, if you think this way.
JW: It’s a constant cultivation of that security that allows me to do my work. I wouldn’t say that I was born with that security.
MG: So how did you get there?
JW: I wouldn’t say that I was born without security, but throughout my adult life I tried and hoped that others have tried to take that security away from me. It’s a constant fight for cultivation. I’m constantly cultivating my mind with balance.
MG: How do you do that? How do you cultivate your mind?
JW: I don’t know. I’ve been meditating for nine and a half years now. I’ve actually been doing mindful practice.
MG: What does it mean in the daily life, one hour a day?
JW: I do just a couple of minutes. Like this morning I did fifteen minutes.
MG: Is that enough?
JW: It’s just being in a state of non-grasping. I’m not grasping to make art history. I’m not grasping to provoke. I’m not grasping to alienate. I’m not grasping to be loved. It’s like . . . to let go. In order to be centered one must completely let go. Then I can do the work through my body and through my intuition. I can’t be in that state unless I cultivated it more or less because it’s a very pure state. It’s like a child’s state.
MG: Are you in this state when you are making work?
JW: I do my best to try and always be in this or near this state. I don’t usually . . . It’s really hard.
MG: I’m full of respect; I will probably never get into this stage. The last question about (Female Figure). The female figure as subject and object has been so often addressed throughout history of art. Are you competing with the greatest artists of the past by presenting your version of the female figure? Is this your Mona Lisa?
JW: I never thought of that.
MG: I’m happy that I have put a question you’ve never thought of.
JW: No, I never thought about that. I’m just dealing with myself.
MG: It can’t be that you are only dealing with yourself. Your work is so much in the present and so loaded with possible meanings. I can’t imagine that you don’t think about possible meanings out there.
JW: The only time I ever thought about something like that was when I was trying to make a video called Animation Masks and I really wanted to challenge Jeff Koons’s Bunny. “How can I do this?” I thought, “I’ll create this Jewish character who challenged Jeff Koons.” That’s the only time I ever really thought of this relation. I’m really seeing things in my head and I’m putting them down on paper and making objects from them in a very non-judgmental way. That’s really what you’re getting from the works. There is an editing process, but all this is just kind of an intuitive thing. I had to give up wanting to make art history.
MG: Why was this condition so important to you?
JW: I guess in order to make these works, because if you are interested in making art history, you are comparing yourself to those things. You are literally attaching yourself to them. I needed to let go of all of those things in order to do what I do. It literally all comes down to this cultivated centered practice of just intuition and body. They’re really the same thing. I’m being in the world and I’m looking around all the time and I’m trying to absorb stuff and I’m reading and I’m trying to fill myself up as much as I can. I follow my interests. I just trust that whatever comes out of me that is my shape. But I’m not an original being, I’m not that unique. I’m just letting it come out in an uncensored way. It’s not only about explicit things, but also about a dumb thought or something simple where I would shout, “Oh, that’s so simple. Of course not.”
MG: Is this way of working and this form of existence as you just de scribed it, let’s say, a contemporary variation of the old Hegelian idea of art as being actually not more than instrument of the spirit of time?
JW: Sure, absolutely. I go with that. And I go with Adorno’s cracked lens like the messianic light. That’s all we can be.
MG: Let’s go now to your other work Colored Sculpture that has, I think, another very important aspect that very often comes up in your work, which is violence. I saw this work in the Stedelijk Museum. You stressed in a few interviews that it was a real violence. I was curious, why this idea of real violence when we actually speak about violence that might be real but is applied to a constructed object within the context of art? Why is this idea of real so important for you?
JW: Because it wasn’t simulated. We were actually applying force to the object. Had there been a real person attached to the chains they would have been killed immediately. In this sense it was real.
MG: But the person was a sculpture. The violence was real, but finally the effect was mediated.
JW: I never thought of it like this. I just decided that I was applying real violence to the object. The mechanism of the sculpture itself was like a puppeteer with puppets and really applying violence to it. It was real for me.
MG: You once said that our brains and our bodies are pre-programmed to experience the violence as a kind of euphoric effect. I thought, you do think about the viewer and how to reach them.
JW: I’m only talking about my own body, I have no experience in their body. What I mean is this idea of transgression or violence, right? It creates a rupture in our perception that opens us up to being potentially more present. Or it opens us up t o witnessing or seeing reality; or seeing reality more clearly. When you witness this, it’s a kind of disorientation that allows you to witness the present in a very raw format that is not mediated through thought and not through judgment.
MG: When David Zwirner spoke about you, he said that when one looks at your work one is constantly whiplashed without empathy. Would you agree with this?
JW: I didn’t know what he said. Well, I think what he tries to describe is this emulation of the indifference of nature that gets instilled in my work that’s also kind of the state of non-judgment. In a true state of non-judgment there is no empathy because empathy is a contrived sort of human emotion, right? Empathy is something we make in order to interpret and organize the world around us. If you remove that, you’re simply looking at the indifference of nature: a storm or a tornado or a wave has no empathy. A wave also amplifies that beauty, or the essence of its being, is formed without empathy.
MG: Human beings cannot exist being emotionally indifferent.
JW: Human beings are trying to make sense of the world all the time. One of the biggest, sort of, ruptures of being a person is that witnessing the indifference of nature and the horror and the beauty of its indifference. When you translate that into the human world where we have rules and laws and all of these things, it seems like a tragedy. How dare nature behave that way. How dare nature allow that to happen. Indifference is the tragedy of nature, but in essence indifference is super powerful.
MG: How would you like to unlock the power of indifference?
JW: The whole human experience is dictated by our contradiction to nature’s indifference because we have empathy. We’re like, “Oh, I can’t believe why that whale just ate the penguin. I can’t believe that part of the cliff just fell into the ocean.” When we experience the indifference of nature it has a profound, lasting, almost traumatizing effect on us. For example, feeling the sense of falling like if you’re on a roller coaster you would feel the force of movement, you’re feeling the force of nature in its profound.
Have you heard this Walter Benjamin’s quote where he says like, “The human beings need to hold wild animals up close?” Because if you’re holding the animal and you can feel its heartbeat, you realize that you are the same as it is. That’s a terrifying experience. When we realize that we are as indifferent as nature, that we are part of that indifference, there is – I love the word – the dichotomy. The dichotomy of man and nature. Within art the only thing that matters is the body – the witness’s body and how do we access that body. Indifference creates this internal dichotomy, like an internal splitting of the viewers which opens them to seeing the world, at least for a moment, clearly.
MG: I never thought of it this way.
JW: This is how I think about it. In a way, the artworks are really just devices to open the viewer for them to experience a flash of reality.
MG: This flash of reality experienced through art – that could be Heidegger talking. Through art you have a tiny little moment of that sudden disclosure, of “truth” in case of Heidegger, and reality according to you.
JW: An experience.
MG: If we stay in the realm of nature, art and experience, the connection was often made through the idea of the sublime. This sort of heavy confrontation with nature that is overwhelming, emotional and threatening, not indifferent.
JW: I think it becomes emotional because of the lack of comprehension or the lack of acceptance of the indifference. It creates a friction or emotion, whatever you want to call it. Say, you’re a child and an adult says to you and your friend, “Both of you stand over here” and then he gives an ice cream cone to your friend but not to you, and then he stares at you blankly. You’re going to be like, “That’s not fair. Give me an ice cream cone.” But in essence it really doesn’t matter. Maybe he only had one ice cream cone, so he gave it to your friend. Well, a human would say, “Split it in half.” That’s the difference between us and nature. We split it in half because sharing is correct. We can take this object and divide its form, either lengthwise or through the center. But you could hand the ice cream cone to one kid. Or maybe the ice cream cone falls on the floor, or maybe the adult eats the ice cream cone in front of you. Or maybe he gives the ice cream cone to you. It’s always the person who doesn’t receive or the person who receives. That creates a subjective narrative. We’re grasping to a narrative.
MG: What you call “grasping to a narrative” is an attempt to make sense.
JW: We’re grasping to understand something constantly; that’s also the problem with the public and an artist. The public is grasping to understand the artist. It gets very frustrating when they can’t. The reason why I have this issue with the public has to do with my working method. I cannot offer reconciliation for my work. Therefore, it becomes the assumption that I’m asking for it, that I’m a provocateur. I’m bad because I can’t provide reconciliation.
MG: Do you have issues with the public?
JW: I think that the public has an issue with me. Phenomenologically they don’t. I don’t. It doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t bother me.
MG: Does it not bother you really? You would probably be the only person on earth who would be immune to criticism.
JW: It doesn’t bother me through my cultivation. Of course, it would bother me if I wouldn’t cultivate my mind and my ego and then I would join the pack of fear and pain. But I practice cultivation. I’m kind of like aware of it.
MG: Looking at your Instagram or at your public persona in the media you are not that indifferent, you are more like tortured artist; you speak about fear and suffering.
JW: I think I am suffering. I’m in a constant state of suffering and then release. And sometimes I’m really bad. When I have my phone when I’m suffering, I will act out. It ’s really not strategic. But then I allow myself to do it. There’s something exciting about acting out. I forgive myself for my ego. I forgive myself for acting out. I can’t tell you that I’m a perfect person. I’m a troubled person who practices a lot of cultivation of his mind and acts out and makes mistakes. It’s not a contrived performance. It’s actually real. I’m a crazy person, I guess . . . I let it happen. Sometimes I get embarrassed about these things, too. I’m a tremendously insecure person but I counter that with my cultivation.
MG: I see that the pendulum in arts, and not only in arts, goes now into a heavy moralism. Especially the young generation would like to have everything morally “vegan.”
JW: Young people are always moralistic because they don’t know who they are. Moralism is an idea that creates a support structure. It’s like climbing on the monkey bars as a kid on the playground: you can climb upside down, you can climb right side up, you can climb vertical, you can climb down, right? Potentially, you have full mobility as long as you grasp something, and you’re attached to something. But the whole thing is, for me, I had to let go of the monkey bars. I had to risk hitting the ground and it never happened. I never hit the ground. What I realized is the idea of grasping an attachment.
MG: Don’t you think that artists driven by ideas of morality could have a function?
JW: They see the indifference and the corruption in human society, and they want to fight against it. They have every right to do it. We can also argue, that they should go and protest. That’s a really good and efficient way of doing it. They should run for office. But making art with a didactic, moralistic message that is trying to help the world rather than see the world is a futile effort. Unfortunately, it takes someone a little bit more mature to see that. I was a young, idealistic and moralistic artist as well. But I had to let go of that. I remember letting go of that.
MG: When was that? What was the moment that you let it go?
JW: Oh, I realized it was wrong for me.
MG: What was the moment of revelation?
JW: It was right after I was in the Whitney Biennial in 2006. I was twenty-five.
MG: You had the work I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an Emperor in it?
JW: Yes, right – so moralistic and idealistic. It was also obnoxious. I wanted it to be really smart. It was after that that I became afraid how I would be responded to by the public. I wanted to be safe and on the right side of things. I knew that that was a lie. I knew that I was acting unauthentically.
MG: Why were you unauthentic?
JW: Ever since I wanted to be an artist as a kid I just wanted to see the world. When I was a kid there was this Domino Sugar sign in Queens. I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I remember looking across the city and all I’m seeing is this Domino Sugar sign. I would think to myself, “If I’m seeing that, there must be thousands of other children seeing that right now.” Everyone is seeing the same thing but they’re seeing it from a little bit of a different angle. I remember this giving me the confidence to know that I can see the world and that my vision of the world can be shared. I lost that for a second and I simply wanted to protect myself. It was essentially a quite narcissistic opportunism. I can’t speak for any of the young people now like what their morals are or if they’re behaving opportunistically. I can only speak for myself; and I was. Essentially, I was not living my truth. It was the horrible, worst years of my life.
MG: How did you get out of this situation?
JW: By the time I was thirty I really started my work. The video animation called Con Leche was kind of one foot in and one foot out because there was a conceptional element to it. That was the last thing I had to let go of: having something conceptual. After I had finished Con Leche I had let go of being conceptual because conceptional was grasping. It was safety. I was still holding on to the monkey bars.
MG: What happened next?
JW: I made Animation Masks. Suddenly I was interested in what’s the new moral position. Then I made Raspberry Poser which was also about the moral position. Can someone from a heterosexual perspective talk about the HIV virus? For me it was, “How can I talk about my fear of AIDS?” because I had such a profound fear of it.
MG: How come you were so afraid of AIDS?
JW: I grew up with AIDS around me. My mother was an AIDS therapist, she was a counsellor in an AIDS clinic, so this was constantly in my life. And we lived in New York City, you know what I mean? My father’s best friend died of AIDS. It was fear of global warming and AIDS. That’s what got like prescribed to me as a child. I grew up with two complete paranoias. I gave myself permission to see the world through that lens.
MG: Step by step getting rid of the monkey bars.
JW: There were other things as well; the idea of witnessing titillation and arousal. How do invert that? That was this idea of subject/object that later on resulted in (Female Figure).
MG: You mean the direct contact between the object and the viewer?
JW: In 2009, when I was twenty-nine, I did the Frieze Cartier Award and I made this piece called Your Napoleon where the actual actors star at you and they speak to you. The man is always looking at you in a threatening way and the woman is also flirting with you. It was always for one viewer. That’s where the eye contact started. Then in Animation Masks, there was eye contact as well. In Raspberry Poser, there was eye contact as well. (Female Figure), Colored Sculpture and Riverboat Song also have eye contact.
MG: Summing up, you liberated yourself from the system of art that required conceptual elements; you let go the expectations from the art world regarding your work and also from the expectations of yourself to yourself. And then you started to make, let’s say, your art.
JW: I just, honestly, started telling the truth about myself and how I saw the world. My truth. My truth is not original. I just started witnessing and allowing myself to be a witness. And a good witness describes what they see. That’s all I’m doing.
MG: Is this the task of the artist today, you would say? Being a witness? Being someone who sees the world as it is?
JW: That is the task of the artist. It’s been the task of the artist since the pyramids. It’s like “What were the hieroglyphics?” They were witnessing. What was Bruegel doing? He was witnessing. What was Michelangelo doing? He was gazing. It’s witnessing.
MG: You don’t believe in this idea of the artist who should change the world who is the revolutionary and who is having social tasks?
JW: No, I don’t. I actually believe that artists do much better in politics or politics adjacent. It’s just a different kind of art. It just might not be the genre of art that I am working in. I’m in the witnessing genre and not the other political artist genre. It’s just not what I’m doing or interested in, just because I am not doing it that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist. I accept that. That’s like comparing country music and rap music. You can have hybrids of the two. I’m not saying that political art is bad or has no place. I would never say that. I’m just saying that I’m not making that. In no way defending myself. But, when you say, “Oh, Jordan Wolfson shouldn’t be doing this” you’re basically saying, “Oh, he should be making it in a different genre of that.” And that’s just absurd. If someone wants to make decorative or political art or like body art or performance art or whatever . . . identity, politics . . . They should totally do it. And there are definitely some people out tthere making the best of that work. But I’m not. That’s not my genre.
MG: How would you classify your genre?
JW: I don’t think I’m super unique. I definitely think that there are other artists working in my genre. Totally.
MG: Do you speak about your art with others?
JW: A little bit with other artists. I’m just trying to be free. I’m just trying to be a free witness.
MG: On a more practical note: you moved from New York to LA in 2013. Why did you move to LA? Do you think that LA could replace New York as the most important art city in the world?
JW: I don’t know. It’s more affordable here but it’s also becoming more expensive now. I moved here so that I can make animatronics. That’s it.
MG: Was the only reason to move to LA to make animatronics?
JW: I have a studio. It’s a very good place for making things. LA is a little bit of a boring place to live. Very beautiful. I’m here for my work right now, but I’m a New Yorker. I’ll probably go back there someday. I’d love to live in Rome actually.
MG: In Rome?
JW: It is my dream to live in Rome.
MG: Why in Rome?
JW: Or in Italy. I don’t know. You look at all the sculptures all the time.
MG: But then you’ll witness something completely different. Then you witness the past and you should witness the present.
JW: I know. But maybe just for a year, right?
MG: Another practical question: you are a young artist, you are thirty- nine years old, and you are represented by Sadie Coles and Zwirner which is one of the best galleries in the world. I’m sure people envy you because of this. What does it make with you? Is it a comfort or is it intimidation or it doesn’t bother you at all? You have achieved already a lot at such a young age.
JW: Oh really? I don’t think about it. I’m very ambitious and I want to achieve more.
MG: What do you want to achieve?
JW: I’m trying to mine this intuition inside of myself. Making art is weird and confusing, it’s a cultivation of the mind.
MG: Trying to cultivate the mind might be easier when working with top galleries.
JW: I’m with these great galleries and we’re really close. I take it for granted because I’m used to it – I can’t help but being a person. But I remember when David signed me up to the gallery, Is didn’t sleep for one week. Now, I don’t even think about it. This is my life. And it’s not a free ride. It is a lot of work, a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations on me. I’m working really, really hard all the time. But I’m also a spoiled brat, I can’t help but be a person.